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Louise's Longevity

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Native Parisian Weaves a Prolific, Profound Artistic Web

While perusing the Louise Bourgeois retrospective at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden last month, I kept admiring how prolific this talented artist was.

After all, anyone born 98 years ago couldn’t possibly still be making provocative, important art, can she? Au contraire. The French-born artistic dynamo is, indeed, still producing as she approaches the century mark.

During a 70-year career, Bourgeois has crafted a stunning body of work that pleases and challenges the eye, as well as the mind. The native Parisian, who has lived in New York since 1938, explores themes including — but certainly not limited to — fear and feminism, anger and passivity, domesticity and sexuality.

The artist impresses with the intellectual depth of her subject matter — a large range of which can be seen at the Hirshhorn, where more than 120 works, primarily sculptural pieces, along with paintings and drawings, are on display as part of a five-city world tour that wraps up in Washington.

One of her most famous pieces — and the one used by the Hirshhorn on the exhibition’s promotional materials — is the 1993 sculpture “Arch of Hysteria.” The bronze piece depicts a sleek masculine figure, headless, suspended in midair and arched almost completely backward. The form is meant to imbue the viewer with a certain sense of vulnerability.

Reading the accompanying wall text, we learn that the word “hysteria” derives from the Greek “hystera,” meaning womb. The word was generally applied in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to describe emotional women.

But Bourgeois refused to see it that way. “The hysteric [her sculpture] is not a woman … but a man, because men are hysterical too,” she is quoted as saying.

Nearby in the exhibition, some of Bourgeois’s earliest work demonstrates how deeply she thought about the feminine role in society. “Femme Maison,” a trio of ink-on-linen drawings created in the mid-1940s, depict a strange hybrid of women and home. In these drawings, female arms and legs — and in one, even sexual organs — are seen protruding from a domestic dwelling.

Bourgeois said she felt conflicted about a female’s traditional role in the home; that it was both secure and confining. These works seem to convey far more angst than comfort, especially the first in the series, which seems to hint at more than a touch of sheer madness.

“Ventouse,” translated as “cupping jars” in French, is a rather turgid-looking sculpture featuring glass jars protruding from a white ceramic lump. But the piece is at least interesting for its insight into an old homeopathic remedy that the artist’s mother endured, whereby heated glass cups were applied to the skin to help treat arthritic and abdominal pain.

Bourgeois’s early — and even some later — drawings often employ simple, lineal techniques and rarely provide an image of an actual face. Her use of lines and boxes to depict the human form actually dehumanized it by creating a hybrid of human and architectural shapes. Her wooden sculptures, including one cleverly titled “persistent antagonism,” in some way mirror her drawings — linear and fairly obtuse.

For instance, “Blind Leading the Blind,” a seemingly rudimentary assemblage of painted wooden boards, manages to get its point across yet also comes across as engaging despite its cheap, pinkish glare.

Meanwhile, “Red Night,” continues to evoke conflicting feelings of tenderness and distress. The image of a woman lying in a bed, or something more like a Native American papoose, shows placid children’s heads where the woman’s breast and genitals would be. Meanwhile, a chaotic and angry red wind swirls around their supposed tranquility.

Approaching the glowing red sculpture “Destruction of the Father,” the viewer is aware that something really strange is happening and it isn’t good. Visible only from the front, like the stage of a theater, the blocks in the piece are meant to depict angry children who have overwhelmed their father and eaten him for dinner.

Bourgeois is quoted as stating matter-of-factly that it is a “murderous piece.” Indeed, the disturbing nature of her works is often precisely what draws in the viewer — or captures them in some cases.

“Cell (Twelve Oval Mirrors)” is a sort of metallic Stonehenge — 10-foot-tall chrome panels arranged in an oval invite viewers to contemplate their own images. Stare long enough and the images become weirdly illuminating. “Cell: You Better Grow Up” invites the opposite — viewers will want to be anywhere but inside the prison-like contraption in which severed arms hold each other’s hands in another disturbingly poignant moment. Bourgeois explained that the “Cell” sculptures “represent different types of pain: the physical, the emotional and psychological, and the mental and intellectual.”

And finally, there is “Spider,” perhaps the artist’s most iconic work. Bourgeois uses an incredible array of materials — chain link, glass, textiles, wood, rubber, gold, bone and more — to construct a towering arachnid, complete with a belly full of shimmering eggs. The spider straddles a steel cage containing the empty chair of a small child. Yet as menacing as the beast is at first glance, she is also a sympathetic figure. Bourgeois said spiders, and the intricate webs they weave, were reminiscent of her mother, a master weaver and seamstress.

Toward the end of this compelling exhibition, one is amazed at the sheer volume and persistence of Bourgeois’s work, as well as her obvious intellect, curiosity and talent.

A final (but apparently not her last) piece says simply: “It is not so much where my motivation comes from, but how it manages to survive.”

There is no question that the works of this prolific artist are built to last.

About the Author

Michael Coleman is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on July 8, 2014